Silbury Hill

Ask in vain!
For we, the dead,
Speak not a word to you.
This thing was ours, not yours.

Gaze in awe,
On what we wrought.
There is no clue.
This thing was ours, not yours.

We, whose fingers bled,
Whose passions burned.
Care not for you.
This thing was ours, not yours.

Nigel Swift

Silbury by Richard Colt Hoare: circa 1812

Inscription 05 - For A Monument At Silbury-Hill

This mound in some remote and dateless day
Rear'd o'er a Chieftain of the Age of Hills,
May here detain thee Traveller! from thy road
Not idly lingering. In his narrow house
Some Warrior sleeps below: his gallant deeds
Haply at many a solemn festival
The Bard has harp'd, but perish'd is the song
Of praise, as o'er these bleak and barren downs
The wind that passes and is heard no more.
Go Traveller on thy way, and contemplate
Glory's brief pageant, and remember then
That one good deed was never wrought in vain.

Robert Southey (1774-1843)

Silbury by Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838)

Oh forgive if now we pierce the chambers of your rest

Emmeline Fisher was born in 1825 in Poulshot, Wiltshire and died (aged 39) in 1864. Her mother was William Wordsworth’s first cousin. Although Emmeline published a book of verse in 1856 she is perhaps best remembered today for the poem she wrote on the opening of Dean Merewether’s 1849 tunnel into Silbury. The poem, along with other items, was placed in a ceramic urn and left at the end of the Merewether tunnel where it lay undisturbed for some 160 years. The urn was finally unearthed by Richard Atkinson during his and the BBCs ‘activities’ there at the end of the 1960s. This 1849 Silbury ‘time capsule’ urn was at some point then deposited in the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury where it seems to have languished unnoticed until 2005. The urn itself has subsequently been ’lost’ but its contents, including Emmeline Fisher’s poem, are kept (though sadly not on display) at the Alexander Keiller Museum. Mike Pitts, who was for some time curator at the Alexander Keiller Museum, discusses the contents of the urn (and Emmeline Fisher’s poem) in the January-February 2008 issue of the British Archaeology Magazine.*

It’s interesting to speculate why Emmeline Fisher, a young woman of 24 and Wordsworth’s second cousin, should have written her poem in the way that she did.** For example Emmie alludes, in the last few lines of the poem, to what seems to be the ‘pagan’ practice of strewing (human) ashes amid the corn and, by comparison, the Christian practice of interment? Was there some renewed interest in paganism and Druidism at the time Emmie wrote her poem that was rattling the Church authorities, of which her father was a respected member?

Who knows, but one thing’s certain, after some 160 years Emmeline Fisher’s poem, with its apology to our forefathers who built Silbury, stands as the only half-decent thing ever to have been placed within the structure by modern hands. Thankfully even Emmie’s poem is no longer there, though sadly the Atkinson/BBC’s corroding iron tunnel work struts of the late 1960s (not to mention English Heritage’s thousands of plastic sacks of the early 21st century) still are.**
The envelope

Emmie’s poem was placed in an envelope with the following inscription, on the obverse, in the same hand (hers?) as the poem itself -

Lines on the Opening of
Silbury Hill, written by
Miss Emmeline Fisher,
Daughter of The Reverend William
Fisher, Canon of Salisbury and
Rector of Poulshot in Wiltshire
August 1849.

The poem in the urn

Suggested by the opening
made in Silbury Hill,
Aug 3rd 1849

Bones of our wild forefathers, O forgive,
If now we pierce the chambers of your rest,
And open your dark pillows to the eye
Of the irreverent Day! Hark, as we move,
Runs no stern whisper through the narrow vault?
Flickers no shape across our torch-light pale,
With backward beckoning arm? No, all is still.
O that it were not! O that sound or sign,
Vision, or legend, or the eagle glance
Of science, could call back thy history lost,
Green Pyramid of the plains, from far-ebbed Time!
O that the winds which kiss thy flowery turf
Could utter how they first beheld thee rise;
When in his toil the jealous Savage paused,
Drew deep his chest, pushed back his yellow hair,
And scanned the growing hill with reverent gaze, -
Or haply, how they gave their fitful pipe
To join the chant prolonged o’er warriors cold. -
Or how the Druid’s mystic robe they swelled;
Or from thy blackened brow on wailing wing
The solemn sacrificial ashes bore,
To strew them where now smiles the yellow corn,
Or where the peasant treads the Churchward path.

Emmeline Fisher (1825-1864)


NB Both the paper on which the poem is written and the envelope which held it appear to be handmade (it’s difficult to tell from the photo in the British Archaeology Magazine but the bottom and right-hand side of the letter-paper seem to have a deckle edge). The ink may be made from oak gall which means it’s probably acidic and will eventually eat though the paper if left untreated. Emmie’s poem itself is important but so too are the materials used to record it - let’s hope English Heritage are taking the necessary steps, as they undoubtedly took at Silbury itself, to preserve this item for posterity.

Moon over Silbury Hill. Image credit Pam Brophy

Legends: Silbury and the Beckhampton Moonraker

Long, long ago in the village of Beckhampton in Wiltshire, there lived three handsome brothers. The three were not only brothers but good friends as well; alas they had all fallen in love with the same beautiful girl from the village. Each brother had vied with the other two for the girl's attention and each had asked her to marry him. However, as each brother was both kind and handsome the girl was unable to decide which one she wanted for her husband. She was about to tell them that she would choose someone else from another village when an old woman took her aside and said, "My dear, choose the one who can bring you the moon."
The beautiful Beckhampton girl looked at the old woman in surprise and said, "How can anyone bring me the moon?" "Just ask them." replied the old woman. So the beautiful girl turned back to the three brothers and told them she would marry the one who could bring her the moon. Each brother looked at the girl and then at each other, and with heads hung low they went their separate ways, wondering as they went how they could bring the girl they loved the moon.
And so it happened that on the following night there was a full moon at Beckhampton, and as it rose big and bright over Waden Hill the beautiful girl and all the villagers gathered at the foot of Silbury to see which of the three brothers could bring the girl the moon and make her his wife.
The first brother arrived in a wagon pulled by two white horses (it is said that this is how the Waggon and Horses pub at Beckhampton got its present name) and in a loud and clear voice declared that he had brought with him all his gold and silver and that he planned to give it to the barrow wights of the West Kennet Long Barrow if they would only bring him the moon for the night. The villagers shuddered at the mention of the West Kennet barrow wights but waited patiently as he climbed up to the tomb. Soon he returned empty handed but with a deathly expression upon his face; and it is said that the first brother was never seen to smile again.
Then the second brother arrived and announced that he would climb Silbury Hill and from its summit would pull down the moon with the rope and iron he had slung over his shoulders. The villagers shook their heads but waited patiently as the second brother climbed Silbury and watched as he stood there alone casting his rope and iron again and again towards the moon but never drawing even an inch closer to it. Soon the second brother returned empty handed while the moon still hung bright and round in the sky, and it is said that he was never able to lift his arm again.
Finally the third brother arrived; all he carried was a bucket in one hand and a rake in the other, and with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips he waded into the Winterbourne to a place where the full moon was reflected in the water. The villagers and the beautiful Beckhampton girl watched curiously as the third brother dipped his bucket into the stream and raked in the moon's reflection. Then he climbed out of the stream, and with the bucket full of water, strode over to where they all waited. He placed the bucket at the feet of the beautiful girl and as the water settled down the moon's reflection slowly appeared bright and full within it.
"The moon, my love," said the young man, "tis yours for the taking."
Oh, and there's a postscript; to this day it is said that pieces of gold and silver are sometimes found around the West Kennet Long Barrow, and sometimes, on low moonlit nights, a long silken rope can be seen winding its way down from the top of Silbury Hill.

Silbury: Set in a sea of rolling green Downland

It's difficult to imagine the impression Silbury Hill would have made on our Neolithic ancestors as they travelled up and down the Ridgeway, or along other nearby tracks. Perhaps they travelled alone, carrying items to trade, or perhaps they travelled with their family and friends or with herds of cattle or swine. The route these travellers used would have taken them past (or to) the Avebury stone circle, which itself must have been one of the great centres of their cultural, if not their commercial world, and further on to places like Durrington Walls and Stonehenge. Even today, walking or driving within the Avebury area, Silbury will unexpectedly appear in the landscape - almost as if it had been designed to do so.
Imagine then Silbury's impact on a people who had rarely, if ever, seen a structure higher than the one-story roundhouses most of them dwelt in. In the first years of its completion Silbury would have stood as a gleaming white monolith set in a sea of rolling green Downland - a beautifully proportioned structure, sitting serenely in its sacred landscape. Even today Silbury has the power to take one's breath away.
For some two and a half thousand years Silbury Hill remained untouched and undamaged. Even when the Romans arrived there, and built a thriving little town in its shadow, they appear to have treated the structure with respect, deviating their road slightly around it and allowing it to remain at the centre of a (possibly) still active pre-Roman community. It is astonishing to imagine such an ordered little Roman town, with the enormous, indigenous monument of Silbury at its centre, but that seems to be what it was like there some two thousand years ago.
Though we cannot be sure, the Romans do not seem to have tunnelled into or changed the monument in any significant way. The first major change to the structure appears to have been made by the Anglo-Saxons at the beginning of eleventh century when the top was possibly levelled off and the flattened summit then used for defence purposes. After that nothing much seems to have happened until 1776 when Colonel Drax and the Duke of Northumberland, with a team of Cornish miners, dug a shaft from the summit to its centre. This shaft was the beginning of Silbury's 'shame' as it was not properly backfilled. 73 years later, in 1849, Dean Merewether dug a horizontal tunnel - also to the centre of Silbury. This tunnel too was not properly backfilled. Other excavations by William Cunnington and John Lubbock in 1867, Alfred Pass in 1886 and by the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1922 followed. The result was now a worm-holed time bomb waiting to implode - all it needed was for a third major tunnel to be dug to light the fuse.

Silbury by Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838)

Silbury: The shame I

Silbury (Silbury Hill) stands at the side of the old Roman road to Bath, about a mile from the Avebury stone circle on the A4 heading towards Marlborough. There is a small car park close to the structure and information panels in the viewing area there detail the general history of the monument. It is not possible (nor desirable) to climb Silbury and the information panels in the viewing area explain why.
Recent estimates place the final phase of Silbury's construction at some 2,400bce. In other words, Silbury is nearly four and a half thousand years old. Until the modern age it was the largest manmade structure in Europe. When the final stage of Silbury was completed it would have appeared as a huge white 'pyramid' set in a green and gentle Downland valley. At certain times of the year Silbury would, as it still sometimes does today, appear to float at the centre of its own artificial 'lake' and been visible from not only the nearby Ridgeway (possibly the oldest track-way in Europe) but also from many other vantage points on the surrounding Downs - some of these vantage points are as far away as Winterbourne Bassett.

Silbury at the centre of its own artificial lake. Image credit Thelma Wilcox

Silbury: The shame II

In 1968, the BBC's Chronicle series commissioned a 'dig' of Silbury Hill. The dig was lead by one professor Richard Atkinson, the series was conceived by David Attenborough with Magnus Magnusson as the commentator. Atkinson's methods and recordkeeping were appalling even for the time and the BBC's involvement in this debacle (a tunnel dug horizontally to the centre of Silbury) is a sorry stain on its broadcasting history. The outcome of this Atkinson/BBC dig of Silbury did not result in the discovery of the gold or silver treasures they were hoping for; in fact little was discovered at all, and the real archaeological 'treasures' that Atkinson and his team may have found seem to have been either lost or dismissed as unimportant. Atkinson and the BBC did leave something behind at Silbury however - a dank and dangerous tunnel to its heart, a tunnel that was not properly backfilled and was shorn up with dozens of corroding metal supports - many of which were deemed too dangerous to remove during English Heritage's 'conservation' project of 2007-2008. Many of those metal supports are still there - deep within Silbury; a reminder perhaps to future generations of the self-serving conceit of the 20th and 21st centuries. If those words sound strong consider this: even at the beginning of 2008 English Heritage were not only considering leaving in place the concrete lintel (bearing the date 1968) and the metal door with its S logo, intact and at the entrance to the Atkinson/BBC tunnel, but had also decided that a 21st century time capsule should be placed within Silbury. The idea of a time capsule was vehemently opposed by heritage groups, conservators, members of the public and many in the pagan community. Even Lord Avebury himself (owner of Silbury) wrote a strongly worded letter to the Guardian newspaper expressing his disapproval for a time capsule. It seems extraordinary now that English Heritage should have considered such an idea but it is perhaps indicative of this organization's detachment from cultural reality; a detachment that is still sadly seen in the ongoing Stonehenge saga, where roads continue to destroy the tranquillity of the site, and a tacky visitor centre selling fast food is allowed to continue in business just a few metres away from perhaps our most important national treasure.

Some of the iron struts removed in 2008 from the Atkinson/BBC tunnel of 1968

Silbury: The shame III

In a last ditch attempt to save Silbury from collapse, English Heritage undertook a 'conservation' project during 2007-2008 to stabilise the structure and remove the detritus of previous tunnelling. Sadly, not only has much of this detritus been left within the structure, but parts of the original monument (eg the sarsen stones pictured below) seem not to have been returned to their original position within Silbury Hill. The present location of these stones remains unknown to the general public.

Disregarded sarsens from the centre of Silbury

Like some great beacon in the night

Nearly four and a half thousand years ago, a great six-tiered mountain of chalk was being slowly raised among the green downlands of southern Britain. Hundreds of men, women and children laboured day after day to complete their task, and when it was finished their mountain stood gleaming white, a symmetrical island set in a sea of gently rolling hills. It stood taller, larger and prouder than anything else man had ever built before in Europe.
High above, on a nearby track known as the Ridgeway (itself perhaps the oldest road in Europe), this six-tiered mountain of chalk must have presented a truly awesome sight to the warriors, pilgrims and other travellers who ploughed their way back and forth along that ancient highway to what was then, surely, the centre of prehistoric Britain.
Contemporary with the Pyramids, larger than St Paul's Cathedral and containing more than twelve million cubic feet of chalk and rubble (all hewn by hand with no more than antler picks and shovels), that mountain still stands today fast and proud, a testimony to the skill and dedication of its builders. Today it is known simply as Silbury Hill, a silent and mysterious monument set on a quiet valley floor a few kilometres south of the great stone circle of Avebury in Wiltshire, England and less than 30 kilometres from its more famous grandchild, Stonehenge (both Avebury and Stonehenge are World Heritage Sites).
For many, their first glimpse of Silbury Hill is from the old Roman road (now the A4) just as it would have been for travellers and Roman legions nearly two thousand years ago as they made their way between Cunetio (Mildenhall) and Aquae Sulis (Bath). It seems probable that Silbury was used by Roman surveyors as a geographical marker for their road to and from Bath and there is geophysical evidence of a substantial Roman settlement between Silbury Hill and the Swallowhead Spring. At Silbury however, perhaps as a mark of respect for the structure and its ancient builders, the Roman road veers slightly round the structure rather than cutting through it. Travelling by road today Silbury looms out at you as you pass by and there is hardly time to take it in. A small carpark just off the A4 is one of the closest points from which one can view Silbury and parts of its manmade valley floor. From this official viewing area one can gain some idea of the sheer mass of the structure. At the edge of the viewing area there are explanations of Silbury's history, construction and condition set there on plaques by its present guardians, English Heritage.
The Silbury carpark however is not the only place from which to see this astonishing structure, in fact the further one travels from it the more one is able to understand its unique place in the surrounding landscape and to appreciate how beautifully it sits within that landscape.
But what is it? What was it used for? Perhaps, most of all, what's inside? These are questions that have niggled away at antiquarians, archaeologists, gravediggers, treasure hunters and, more recently, television crews for several centuries. Beginning with the so-called Dax Shaft of 1776 several tunnels have been dug into Silbury in an attempt to discover its secrets. This, and subsequent excavations have revealed remarkably little - little that is in material remains. Numerous theories have been, and continue to be, advanced as to the meaning of Silbury but in the end we may never know for sure what it stood for. Silbury does not seem to be a burial mound. It appears to contain no tomb and certainly no gold or silver; no treasure at all except for the few archaeological treasures from its earliest stages - that is to say plant and animal remains, 'rope' and small sarsen boulders.
Whatever Silbury was intended for its sparse contents seem unable to provide the answer. Perhaps the Silbury Secret lies not within it but without; in its beautifully proportioned size and shape, and in something far more intangible - something that many sense when they first see it, and which pulls them back again and again - like some great beacon in the night.